Who’s behind the anti-immigrant crusade?

June 11, 2010

Justin Akers Chacón, co-author with Mike Davis of No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S-Mexico Border, analyzes the political forces that are driving the assault, centered today in Arizona, on immigrants and their rights.

"CAN YOU hear us now, Mexico? Can you hear us? This land is not your land, this land is our land," proclaimed Atlanta talk radio host Larry Wachs, whipping the crowd of 5,000 into a frenzy.

The intent of the statement was to define the enemy and expose its insidious plot: nothing less than an international conspiracy of Mexico's children to invade and occupy Arizona soil, with the criminal intentions of finding work, raising families and achieving some semblance of social equality.

The attendees at the "Stand with Arizona" rally would have none of this. They were gathered on the evening of May 29 at Diablo Stadium in the Maricopa County suburb of Tempe, a few hours after more than 50,000 people marched against Arizona's SB 1070 in downtown Phoenix. A week later, the right's own "national mobilization" of pro-SB 1070 forces, under the name "Phoenix Rising," drew only 1,000 people, despite expectations for greater numbers.

The keynote speaker at both events was Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose effort to turn the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department into his personal posse to hunt down undocumented workers helped pave the way for the passage of the new law. Arpaio giddily refers to July 29--the day when SB 1070 is supposed to be officially implemented--as the "magic day."

Supporters of Arizona's racial profiling law gathered for the "Stand with Arizona" rally in Tempe
Supporters of Arizona's racial profiling law gathered for the "Stand with Arizona" rally in Tempe (Krista Kennell | Sipa)

Intended as a call to arms for a popular insurgency supposedly driving the law from the grassroots, the half-filled stadium in Tempe and poorly attended Phoenix rally told a different story.

The assortment of older, white, Republican Party functionaries and political aspirants, Tea Party activists, AM talk-radio entourages and Minuteman groups reveal the underlying nature of this movement. Far from being an organic and widespread mobilization of disaffected citizens, the latest anti-immigrant surge is a highly orchestrated campaign, emanating from within the Washington beltway.

The latest anti-immigrant campaign has a timing to it, much like previous ones. Undocumented immigrants are being targeted in the lead-up to the 2010 elections, with the hope that red-faced, fear-mongering political campaigns will inflame the population and create an internal threat to focus on and unite against. The continuing toll of the economic recession also gives the right an opportunity for scapegoating.

Hammering immigrants is designed to provide conservative Republicans with a "wedge issue" to rally supporters around, and to obscure the constellation of real and tangible problems facing the populous--problems for which the Republicans have no solutions.

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Hear Justin Akers Chacón at Socialism 2010 in Oakland, speaking with Nativo López and Pablo Alvarado on "Arizona and the Fight for Immigrants' Rights." Check out the Socialism 2010 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

But if the anti-immigrant campaign is gaining more traction in places like Arizona and elsewhere, it's also because the Obama administration and the Democratic Party-controlled Congress are providing the right with an opportunity.

The Democrats have not only abandoned immigration legalization as part of their strategy, at least for now, but they have also opened their own front in the war on immigrants. This has allowed the right to keep the initiative on this question, shifting immigration politics back onto right-wing terrain.

WHILE ARIZONA Republicans may take credit for SB 1070 to build their political careers at the expense of undocumented workers and their families, the law is actually a foreign import into the state.

SB 1070 is the brainchild of Kris Kobach, an anti-immigrant lawyer on the payroll of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group dedicated to promoting extreme measures against immigrants. FAIR is tied to the pseudo-scientific Center for Immigration Studies, which has put forward a framework for what it calls "attrition through enforcement" as a strategy to "shrink the illegal population."

Kobach's origins are far from grassroots. According to the Arizona Republic:

In 2001, just days after 9/11, Kobach got a job as chief adviser on immigration law and border security to John Ashcroft, who was in his first year as U.S. attorney general. Kobach oversaw Department of Justice efforts to tighten border security, including the design and implementation of a system that requires foreign nationals from certain nations to register with a program that tracks their movements in and out of the U.S...

When [state Sen. Russell Pearce, the sponsor of SB 1070] was ready to tackle state enforcement of federal immigration laws, he again called Kobach for help."

In the preamble to SB 1070, the "attrition through enforcement" strategy is clearly identified as the intention:

The legislature finds that there is a compelling interest in the cooperative enforcement of federal immigration laws throughout all of Arizona. The legislature declares that the intent of this act is to make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state and local government agencies in Arizona.

The FAIR strategy was taken up wholeheartedly by Arizona's right-wing politicians as a way to capitalize on the anxiety and instability generated by economic recession and underlying racial tensions coming into the open in the state. Others see the anti-immigrant drive as a resume-builder or a means to push through their own racist pet projects.

But there are other factors shaping the political situation. The border militarization strategy begun in the 1990s under Democrat Bill Clinton and continued by George W. Bush has re-routed a large percentage of migrant crossings through Arizona's southern desert region, providing the pretext for the political onslaught.

The change in migrant crossing patterns has been portrayed by Arizona politicians to manufacture an "out-of-control border" scenario that is designed to misshape public perceptions. For instance, in a recent speech on the U.S. Senate floor, moderate-turned-immigration hawk John McCain bemoaned that lax border security in Arizona "has led to violence--the worst I have ever seen."

The shooting death of south Arizona rancher Robert Krentz, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant, was used by Gov. Jan Brewer to justify signing SB 1070 into law. It came to light shortly afterward that authorities had no evidence linking the shooting to an immigrant, and that the accusation was unfounded speculation. Nevertheless, this incident continues to be a rallying point for supporters of SB 1070.

Government data dispels the "out-of-control border" scenario. According to 2009 data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports cited in the Arizona Republic:

While the nation's [undocumented] population doubled from 1994 to 2004, according to federal records, the violent-crime rate declined 35 percent. More recently, Arizona's violent-crime rate dropped from 512 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2005 to 447 incidents in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available...

[The crime rate in Cochise County, along Arizona's border with Mexico] has been "flat" for at least 10 years...Even in 2000, when record numbers of undocumented immigrants were detained in the area, just 4 percent of the area's violent crimes were committed by [undocumented immigrants].

This led Clarence Dupnik, sheriff of Pima County, another county along the border, to conclude: "This is a media-created event...I hear politicians on TV saying the border has gotten worse. Well, the fact of the matter is that the border has never been more secure."

Moreover, the FBI crime reports also found that the top four big cities with the lowest crime rates are all in border states: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin, Texas. Violent crime rates in Southwest border counties overall have been dropping steadily and are among the lowest in the country. Another recent study conducted by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) found that Border Patrol agents face far less danger than their police counterparts in U.S. cities.

Despite this trend, members of Congress from border states continue to push for more militarization. As immigrant advocate Isabel García of the Tucson-based Derechos Humanos told the San Francisco Chronicle, "Politicians are hyping up this incredible fear across the country about the border, but these numbers show these are lies being perpetrated on the American public."

The impact of the fear-mongering has become apparent from opinion polls. A May 2010 CBS/New York Times poll showed that the percentage of respondents who considered immigration a "very serious problem" had increased to 65 percent by the time the Arizona law had passed, compared to 56 percent in 2007 and 54 percent in 2006.

TO SUPPLEMENT the immigrant-as-criminal approach, there's also economic scapegoating. Anti-immigrant forces claim their laws are needed to protect Arizona workers from the effects of the recession.

According to the Arizona Republic, job opportunities for college graduates in the state have plummeted in recent years. In 2007, 51 percent of graduates found work; by 2009, that number was 20 percent. As the paper continued:

The recession has been especially tough on young workers. As the economy has shed jobs by the thousands, many four-year college graduates have had trouble launching careers, languishing in lower-paying jobs. Historically, those with similar circumstances find it hard to get the same career opportunities and earn as much as those with college degrees who graduate in better times. Those with just a high-school education face even more difficult challenges.

The linking of unemployment to the presence of immigrant workers has been taken up in opportunistic fashion by Arizona Republicans.

Sheriff Arpaio, for example, has re-branded himself a defender of Arizona's native-born workers. Speaking at the May 29 "Stand with Arizona" rally, Arpaio boasted that his department, by arresting or detaining 38,000 undocumented workers to date, was defending jobs. "We have an unemployment problem," he said. "Every time we arrest someone in the workplace, were making room for someone in this country legally."

Other political leaders have similarly seen anti-immigrant politics as a way to advance their careers.

Jan Brewer is one. As secretary of state, she promoted Proposition 200, which cut off the few and meager social services available to undocumented immigrants in the state and requires all voters show proof of citizenship at the polls. She investigated Arizona's welfare agencies to make sure they excluded all ineligible immigrants and helped craft the final version of SB 1070.

As a politician with a mediocre record, who only attained the governor's seat by constitutional succession after Janet Napolitano vacated it to work in the Obama administration, Brewer is facing an uphill battle to retain her office. "She is running in a primary that leans heavily to the right," Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox told the Arizona Republic. "She had to outright the right, and that's what she did."

As the Republic continued:

Telephone polling since Brewer signed SB 1070 suggests her decision sat well with would-be voters in the August Republican primary. Both her job-approval ratings and her lead over her opponents appeared to have gotten a boost in Rasmussen Reports surveys released over the past month.

Then again, trying to salvage a flagging political campaign on the backs of undocumented immigrants has become an increasingly popular sport in Republican circles in other states. The Republican governor's race in California between Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, for instance, degenerated into a vitriolic contest of one-upmanship over who could promise to make the lives of California's immigrants more miserable.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, Poizner sought to overcome Whitman's financial advantage by waving the "bloody-red" shirt of anti-immigration:

His campaign for governor on the ropes, Republican Steve Poizner has been blaming illegal immigration for the state's troubled schools, its crowded emergency rooms and some of its massive budget deficit. Last week, he began airing ads accusing GOP frontrunner Meg Whitman of mimicking President Obama in her positions on illegal immigration--specifically, a comment she made last year about envisioning "a path to legalization" for undocumented workers.

SB 1070 opened the door wide for other reactionary laws and policies. For instance, the recent passage of HB 2281 bans ethnic studies courses in K-12 schools under the pretense that they advocate "race and class resentment" and promote "ethnic solidarity." A pet project of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, the bill targets a successful ethnic studies program in the Tucson Unified School District that has been linked to higher student performance.

Horne has been advocating the upending of the program since 2007, when he published "An Open Letter to the Citizens of Tucson" that urged abolition of the program. When other methods failed, he turned to conservative lawmakers in the legislature and found a hearing. Horne hopes the law will help propel his campaign for state attorney general in the coming elections.

The attack on education set the stage for SB 1070 supporters to go after Latino teachers.

Republican partisans within the Arizona Department of Education recently established a policy requiring that "heavily accented teachers" and those "lacking fluency" be removed from developmental English classes in all Arizona's school districts. Qualifications are supposed to be determined by school officials, even though English proficiency was presumably a condition of the original hiring process.

In practice, the policy will likely empower administrators to remove "undesirable" teachers. It also makes the whole community of Latino and immigrant teachers suspect and vulnerable at a time when many are already taking a stand for their academic rights, and the civil rights of their immigrant students. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out:

The teacher controversy comes amid an increasingly tense debate over immigration. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer this month signed the nation's toughest law to crack down on illegal immigrants. Critics charge that the broader political climate has emboldened state education officials to target immigrant teachers at a time when a budget crisis has forced layoffs. "This is just one more indication of the incredible anti-immigrant sentiment in the state," said Bruce Merrill, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who conducts public-opinion research.

Other factors are driving the polarization in Arizona. According to Steven Nuño of Northern Arizona University, the battles over immigration laws represent a demographic and generational conflict in a state where a conservative and entrenched white political structure feels threatened:

Latinos in Arizona are quite young, averaging 25 years old, while the non-Hispanic white population is in its electoral prime--44 years old. Combined with Latino's higher birth rates, Latinos are simply pushing non-Hispanic whites out the back door, and the institution is fighting back, as hopeless as it is.

Citizenship status remains the greatest structural barrier to participation for Latinos. More than a third of Latinos in Arizona aren't citizens, and therefore are ineligible to vote. However, even among citizens, Latinos in Arizona lag their non-Hispanic white counterparts, with only 37 percent of Latino citizens voting in 2008 and 52 percent of eligible residents registered to vote. While Latinos make up 14 percent of those registered to vote in Arizona, they only make up 12 percent of Arizona's voters in 2008.

If Latinos participated at the same rates as non-Hispanic whites, they would make up 21 percent of Arizona's voters, nearly double. Even more daunting to the system, if non-citizens were given a clear pathway to citizenship and participated at the same rate, they would make up more than 32 percent of Arizona's voters.

Rolling out the welcome mat to Latinos may result in doubling their participation rates, and favorable citizenship laws could result in tripling the current electoral power of Latinos. Arizonans seem unwilling to do either without a fight.

The assult on immigrants isn't just taking place in the legislature. With the anti-immigrant frenzy whipped up around the passage of SB 1070, open racists have felt emboldened to act.

For example, the central Arizona city of Prescott gained attention recently when artists from the Downtown Mural Project were asked to "whiten" the faces of children they were painting in a mural at Miller Valley Elementary School. As one artist told the Arizona Republic: "We consistently, for two months, had people shouting racial slander from their cars. We had children painting with us, and here come these yells of (epithet for Blacks) and (epithet for Hispanics)."

Neo-Nazi and other hate groups have become so comfortable operating in Arizona that they are no longer seeking the anonymity of the crowd--their prominence is so much higher at anti-immigrant events that less extreme groups, such as the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, have tried to distance themselves from some recent pro-SB 1070 rallies. According to Mother Jones, "[t]he group says it is withdrawing its support from any rallies supporting the Arizona law next month 'due to the discovery of racist group involvement and the actions of former Congressman Tom Tancredo.'"

Supporters of immigrant rights and social justice can't let these attacks--whether in the legislature or on the streets--go unchallenged. It will take a mass movement to stand up to the anti-immigrant bigots and turn the tide.

Barack Obama and the Democrats have shown that they will concede ground to the right at every step of the way. The fight to stop anti-immigrant hate and to win equality and justice for our sisters and brothers is a fight that will have to be organized at the grassroots--and involve all of us.

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